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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — Standing with the Lord (Ps 24:4)

Categories Old Testament Hebrew and You

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Psalm 24 is a hymn to the Lord that praises him as owner of all creation because he is the creator and sustainer (vv. 1–2). The next stanza describes the person who has fellowship with the Lord (vv. 3–6). The final stanza is a praise to the Lord (vv. 7–10).

The middle stanza begins with the question of who can stand in the presence of this awesome creator Lord. Verse 4 answers that question with four qualities. Let’s look at three items, leaving the discussion of verb tense in lines c and d for another post.

Poetic Lines

For the sake of convenience, I have divided v. 4 into four lines, a–d. This follows English sense rather than Hebrew. The Masoretic punctuation of וּבַר־לֵבָב, “and pure of heart,” with the Maqqef (near equivalent of the English hyphen) makes these two words into one lexical unit. As a result my lines a and b form a single three-unit line. Then in my line c the relative pronoun אֲשֶׁר, “who,” introduces a pair of three-unit units (notice the Maqqef again in לֹא־נָשָׂא). So, it would be better to see v. 4 as having lines a, b1, and b2. For ease of reference, we will count four lines.


Next, notice that for lines a and b there is no Hebrew equivalent for the NIV “The one who has” (“he who has” in NASB). The English addition does accurately render the logical connection of v. 4 to v. 3. The disadvantage is that it makes it appear that a–b is structurally parallel to c–d, which is not the case. The terseness of lines a and b gives an impact lost by the longer English expression.

Each of these lines simply consists of an adjective joined in construct to a noun. For a review of the Genitive case, please see my earlier May 2015 post on Zech 9:1 or Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 119–25. Formally the two lines may be rendered “a guilt-free of hands and a pure of heart.” One might label the function of the Genitive (i.e., how N2, the noun, relates to the N1, in this case the adjective) as an “Attributed Genitive,” the opposite of an Attributive Genitive. In other words, instead of the N2 describing the N1, the N2 is described by the N1. Both the NIV and NASB bring out the adjectival function clearly: “clean hands” and “pure heart.”

But why does the Hebrew construct occur instead of the more normal adjective position of noun followed by adjective? It allows the terseness mentioned above. This in turn allows the construct to draw attention to the quality of the person who will stand with the Lord. We might also understand the adjective as having the force of a noun, “a guilt-free person,” and label the function as a “Genitive of Respect.” This may be rendered, “A person guilt-free with respect to the hands and a person pure with respect to the heart.” To say that this person is “guilt-free with respect to his hands” is stronger than the more routine expression that a person has “clean hands.”


In lines c and d, the NIV and ESV are quite different. There are three issues here. First a text critical issue. Codex Leningradensis, the text most widely published for the MT, actually reads נַפְשִׁי, “myself,” but many manuscripts and versions, including the Targum, read נַפְשׁוֹ. The NIV and NASB both follow the latter.

Second, the verb and direct object in line c in Hebrew form the expression נָשָׂא ... נַפְשׁוֹ with the preposition ל. The NASB renders this formally: “has [not] lifted his soul to [something].” נֶפֶשׁ, NASB “soul,” is probably best conceived of as “self.”

But the meaning of the NASB of line c is still not clear. Is this expression better understood as an idiom meaning “to rely on”? The NIV translators think so and render this “does [not] trust in.” A near parallel example of this expression with this meaning is Deut 24:15; Pss 25:1; 86:4; 143:8; Jer 22:27; 44:14. All these examples have the meaning “to rely on.” But in all these examples the preposition used is אֶל and not ל. In fact, I found no other use of this exact phrase with ל in the OT. The two prepositions do overlap in meaning; is the difference in Ps 24:4 significant? The answer to this depends on the next issue.

Third, what is the meaning of the noun שָׁוְא in the prepositional phrase לַשָּׁוְא? The basic idea of the noun is “falsehood; vanity, worthlessness, emptiness, purposelessness” (see the lexicons, and especially Jerry Shepherd, שָׁוְא, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology). The prepositional phrase is used adverbially to mean “in vain” (Exod 20:7?; Jer 2:30).

Can the word have the derived meaning of “idols” as the epitome of that which is empty and false? Shepherd cites Jonah 2:8 as a near parallel. He also cites an exact parallel, Jer 18:15, as a likely example. In Jer 18:15 the Israelites are indicted for burning incense לַשָּׁוְא. But does שָּׁוְא ever definitively mean “idol” and was it these that made Israel stumble as in the rest of v. 15 following the MT? Or, following other manuscripts, should it be that the Israelites themselves stumbled and לַשָּׁוְא can simply mean that they offered incense to the Lord, but did so in vain because of all their sins, including syncretism of worship of the Lord with the worship of other gods? The same discussion can take place over the expression לְמִרְמָה in line d, which the NIV renders “[swear] by a false god.” מִרְמָה is synonym with שָׁוְא, but never clearly means an idol, unless Ps 24:4 is such an example.

If שָׁוְא refers to an idol, then the likely meaning of “lifting one’s soul” is “to rely on” as in the NIV. If לַשָּׁוְא means “in vain,” then the likely meaning of lifting one’s soul is resolving of oneself to a particular lifestyle or action (cf. Prov 19:18).

A Lesson

Both the NIV and NASB translations of lines c and d are possible and both make equally good sense. Following the NASB, all four lines refer to a person’s personal morality in action and speech. Following the NIV, lines a and b refer to one’s personal morality in the treatment of others and lines c and d refer to one’s sole devotion to the one, true God, coinciding with the two greatest commandments (Matt 22:34–40; cf. Deut 6:5; 19:18).

As we enter a new year, may each of us resolve to grow in our personal integrity in our actions, in our speech, and in our reliance on the one true God. (Image Source: Ligonier Ministries.)


lee-fieldsLee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.

Learn more about Lee’s innovative work in biblical languages and instruction.

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